By Peter C. Bjarkman
HAVANA TIMES, July 17 – With the 38th International Baseball Federation (IBAF) World Cup looming on the horizon in less than two months time, the Cuban Baseball Federation yesterday announced a list of 58 players who will compete to fill 24 coveted roster spots for the opening of the September games in Barcelona.
These hopefuls comprise two all-star rosters that will compete in a trial exhibition series staged throughout the island from late-July until late-August. Representing (more or less) the two Cuban League regional divisions. The Western team will be directed by Esteban Lombillo (manager of the the 2008-9 Cuban League champions, Habana Province) and Eduardo Martin (skipper of the Eastern Division finalists, Villa Clara). The complete announced rosters are as follows:
OCCIDENTALES (WEST) TEAM
Manager: Esteban Lombillo (Habana Province), Coaches: Rafael Muñoz and Omar Linares, Trainer: Javier Gálvez
Catchers: Eriel Sánchez (Sancti Spíritus), Yosvani Peraza (Pinar del Río), Yaimel Alberro (Matanzas)
Infielders: José Dariel Abreu (Cienfuegos), Yoandri Garlobo (Matanzas), Rafael Valdés (Pinar del Río), Ernesto Molinet (Habana Province), Michel Enríquez (Isla de la Juventud), Yariel Duque (Matanzas), Roberto Carlos Ramírez (Metros), Rudy Reyes (Industriales), Donald Duarte (Pinar del Río)
Outfielders: Frederich Cepeda (Sancti Spíritus), Leonys Martin (Villa Clara), Jorge Padrón (Pinar del Río), Juan Carlos Linares (Habana Province), Ariel Sánchez (Matanzas), Irait Chirino (Metros)
Pitchers: Pedro Luis Lazo (Pinar del Río), Yadier Pedroso (Habana Province), Yulieski González (Habana Province), Miguel Alfredo González (Habana Province), Ismel Jiménez (Sancti Spíritus), Miguel Lahera (Habana Province), Jonder Martínez (Habana Province), Vladimir Baños (Pinar del Río), Noelvis Entenza (Cienfuegos), Norberto González (Cienfuegos), Arleys Sánchez (Industriales)
Of the 29-man West League roster, nine members appeared on Cuba’s March World Baseball Classic ball club (position players Peraza, Enríquez, Cepeda, and Martin; pitchers Lazo, Yulieski González, Jiménez, Lahera, and Norberto González).
ORIENTALES (EAST) TEAM
Manager: Eduardo Martin (Villa Clara), Coaches: Luis Jova and Orestes Kindelán, Trainer: Omar Carrero
Catchers: Ariel Pestano (Villa Clara), Rolando Meriño (Santiago de Cuba), Yulexis la Rosa (Villa Clara)
Infielders: Ariel Borrero (Villa Clara), Yorelvis Charles (Ciego de Avila), Héctor Olivera (Santiago de Cuba), Yoilán Cerce (Guantánamo), Yulieski Gourriel (Sancti Spíritus), Adonis García (Ciego de Avila), Luis Miguel Navas (Santiago de Cuba), Yorbis Borroto (Ciego de Avila), Alexander Guerrero (Las Tunas)
Outfielders: Alfredo Despaigne (Granma), Yoennis Céspedes (Granma), Giorvis Duvergel (Guantánamo), Yoelvis Fiss (Ciego de Avila), Leslie Anderson (Camagüey), Yeral Sánchez (Holguín).
Pitchers: Norge Luis Vera (Santiago de Cuba), Freddy Asiel Alvarez (Villa Clara), Maikel Folch (Ciego de Avila), Yaumier Sánchez (Santiago de Cuba), Vladimir García (Ciego de Avila), Valeri García (Ciego de Avila), Alfredo Unzúe (Ciego de Avila), Alberto Bicet (Santiago de Cuba), Alien Mora (Ciego de Avila), Misael Silverio (Villa Clara), Dany Betancourt (Santiago de Cuba).
Of the 29-man East League roster, eleven members also appeared on Cuba’s 2009 WBC squad (position players Pestano, Meriño, Olivera, Gourriel, Navas, Despaigne, Céspedes and Anderson; pitchers Vera, Vladimir García, and Dany Betancourt). Yulieski Gourriel has been assigned to the East squad to balance the rosters, though his Sancti Spíritus club plays in the Occidentales league.
Several surprises are immediately apparent in these roster announcements. First and foremost are the absences of Pinar del Río ace right-hander Yunieski Maya (13-game winner and “best right-hander” selection on this year’s post-season all-star team), Santiago outfielder Alexei Bell (slugging star of last summer’s Beijing Olympics), and Las Tunas first baseman Joan Carlos Pedroso (member of both Cuban WBC teams).
Pedroso has been bumped aside by emerging youngsters Jose Dariel Abreu and Yorelvis Charles; his slim chances for selection were also hurt rather dramatically by the recent stellar World Port Tournament performance of Villa Clara veteran Ariel Borrero. Bell-who underperformed throughout the last Cuban League season entire after suffering an eye injury in the season’s opener-is apparently still not healthy enough for resurrection in the national team picture.
But the most shocking absence, of course, is that of Maya, who has now been reported by the Cuban press as being suspended by league officials for “serious disciplinary infractions” (no details given). Such language usually refers to a player’s illegal attempts to leave the country, but in this case there has been no confirmation of the exact nature of Maya’s disciplinary problems.
Also intriguing in yesterday’s announcement were two managerial assignments for the upcoming August “tryout” exhibition series. When a similar event (the José Huelga Memorial Tournament) was staged in Havana and San José last June as part of the Beijing Olympic squad selection process, assumed national team manager Antonio Pacheco did not manage either Cuban club but instead observed and evaluated players from the sidelines.
Pacheco then played a major role in the final team selection alongside league commissioner Higinio Vélez and technical director Benito Camacho. The fact that Lombillo and Martin will manage in August, while Roger Machado remains on the sidelines, may be taken as a strong signal (if past precedent is followed) that Machado has the inside track on the September World Cup managerial post.
Though it was widely thought that Lombillo had the post all but wrapped up after his ball club’s National Series championship performance, Machado’s successes with Cuba B at this month’s Rotterdam tournament may have now altered the picture considerably.
Two starting assignments among position players seem destined to be the most hotly contested during the upcoming month. An outfield of Cepeda, Despaigne, Céspedes, and Martin seems all but set; as does an infield containing at least Enríquez at third, Gourriel at second, and Héctor Olivera as the utility man. And Pestano, Peraza and Eriel Sánchez are the likely backstops. But Eduardo Paret’s retirement has left a major void at shortstop, where Luis Navas and the rapidly emerging Yorbis Borroto now seem to have the inside track.
Navas was Paret’s backup on the WBC roster, and Ciego de Avila’s Borroto performed admirably over the past couple of weeks in Rotterdam. Of course 22-year-old Alex Guerrero of Las Tunas can not be entirely counted out either after batting .338 with 19 homers and being named the league’s outstanding shortstop during this past winter’s National Series.
Another obvious opening exists at the first base slot where Ariel Borrero (on the heels of a hot post-season and an even hotter Rotterdam outing) seems to have regained the job he lost after the first WBC games in 2006. Alex Mayeta of Industriales seemed a fixture at first a year ago, but Mayeta’s exclusion from the WBC squad apparently signaled the end of his brief national team tenure. Strongest challenges to Borrero will likely come from Yorelvis Charles, veteran Yoandry Garlobo, and Leslie Anderson (who filled in more than admirably at first during the March WBC) though he is now listed on the Orientales roster as an outfielder.
Pitching will also an area of primary concern for the Cuban brain trust entering World Cup competition, especially given the aging of veteran closer Pedro Lazo (who has recently talked of retirement) plus the losses of Maya and the recently departed phenom Aroldis Chapman. This month’s Rotterdam tournament has suggested, however, that plenty of help is on the way in such youthful arms as those of Freddy Asiel Alvarez, Miguel Alfredo González and Vladimir García.
The Orientales and Occidentales teams will open exhibition play during the final week of the current month in Holguín’s Calixto García Stadium and will then play a total of 18 games over the course of the following full month. The complete series schedule is as follows:
Holguín (Calixto García Stadium), 3 Games (July 24-25-26)
Santiago de Cuba (Guillermón Moncada Stadium) 3 Games (July 31, August 1-2)
Ciego de Avila (José Ramón Cepero Stadium) 3 Games (August 7-8-9)
Villa Clara (Augusto César Sandino Stadium) 3 Games (August 11-12-13)
San José (Nelson Fernández Stadium) 3 Games (August 15-17-18)
Havana (Latin American Stadium) 3 Games (August 21-22-23)
Cuba will open World Cup play in tournament Group B at Barcelona, debuting versus Puerto Rico on September 10. Host Spain and South Africa will comprise the remainder to the Group B opening round pool.
The Cubans will be aiming to recapture the World Cup crown they surrendered with a disappointing silver medal finish behind Team USA at the November 2007 World Cup in Taiwan. Before their defeat at the hands of the Americans in 2007, Cuba had captured nine straight World Cup titles (dating back to 1984) and an astounding 25 of the 28 IBAF showcase world title events (known as the “Amateur World Series” until 1988) they had previously entered.